'Citizen Juling': Exploring a Thai woman's death

HONG KONG — 'How do you make a film about a girl who could never give you an interview, because she's in a coma?" asks the Thai artist Ing K in a recent film festival blog entry.

The answer: with the Thai contemporary art photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom and the controversial opposition senator Kraisak Choohavan. The three collaborated in producing "Citizen Juling," an intelligent and timely documentary that explores the circumstances surrounding the death of Juling Pongkanmul, a teacher from northern Thailand who was assaulted by Muslim women in a village in southern Thailand's war zone in May 2006.
The film had its world premiere last Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Even with the current anti-establishment protests and political turmoil, the directors plan limited screenings in Bangkok by late this month.

Running at three hours and 42 minutes, and shot in cinéma vérité style, the filmmakers admit that "Juling" is both "intense and demanding." It is not an easy movie, but it is powerful and compelling, offering an unflinching and achingly human view of some of Thailand's social conflicts.

Manit shot about 90 percent of the footage on a small digital video camera. "Because I didn't have to look through the monitor," Manit said, "the subjects were more relaxed; people did not feel threatened. I could look at them and smile, so it is like a home movie." He let individuals tell their tales, recording many of them for the first time.

For him, "Juling," with its long single-shot scenes, is about capturing emotions. In a telephone interview, he said from Bangkok, "Now and then the media reports the facts, how many are dead, but what about the feelings of the people?" In the last five years about 3,000 people have "disappeared," died in detention or been the targets of allegedly government-sanctioned extra-judicial killings in Muslim southern Thailand. It took Manit and Ing working with Kraisak - who helped gain access to nearly all the personalities in the film, including Juling's family and school colleagues, religious and political leaders, and Muslims who have suffered under the Thai government's military rule in the south - to make the first feature-length documentary on the civilian toll of the war.

Manit, 46, first gained international fame for his conceptual "pink man" photography series, a commentary on consumerism and globalization. The artist, whose work has been shown at the Venice and São Paolo biennales, sees the project as an extension of his art. "My work has always had a political message. Working on this documentary is part of my mission," he said. He shot most of the footage over four months in 2006, ending with the coup d'état that forced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of office.

The film creates an intimate portrait of a society torn apart by unequal access to opportunities and justice and plagued with violence, yet held together by an unquestioning devotion to the king.

The documentary starts off trying to understand the tragedy of Juling, whose story moved the nation. Juling taught children art in a war zone in the south. In May 2006, a mob of Muslim women kidnapped and brutally beat her, leaving her in a coma.

By the end of the film, what most leaves an impression are the myriad characters and their catalogue of injustices: personal stories of torture (a senator wrongly imprisoned for two years as a suspected Al Qaeda cell member), of grief (a father whose son died in detention), and of the long-simmering anger in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south.

Ing, an activist writer and painter, served as the director, editor and primary creative force behind the project. Speaking by phone, she said: "People in Thailand are going to expect Teacher Juling adoration in this film and it is not that." Juling is the medium that makes some of Thailand's most difficult problems accessible. "There have been more shocking killings of teachers, one was even beheaded, but there was something about Juling," Ing added.

For eight months, as Juling lay comatose, the country prayed for her, celebrities and schoolchildren visited, and she inspired poems. Her paintings and drawings were exhibited. The Thai media called her the "Sleeping Beauty" and artists - like Manit - donated works to sell to help pay her hospital bills. The only song featured in the documentary is a popular Thai country music piece about Juling. She died in January 2007.

Ing, who had not made a documentary in a decade, got the idea for the film at a fundraising art exhibit for Juling where she found a sobbing young Muslim Thai woman. She is featured in the film.

The one image Ing wishes she could have included in "Juling" was one she saw on television during the current Bangkok protests. "It was an old auntie wearing a crash helmet - people have been donating crash helmets to demonstrators - and she was Thai dancing. She was so happy, so empowered." Crowds had just forced their way into Government House, Bangkok's administrative seat.